Friday, 25 March 2011

Think of the Children!

My last blogpost (which was some time ago, for which I apologise, regular readers) was a bit of an irked rant about people saying what skeptics in the pub and similar sceptical/rationalist campaigns should be about. I don't like this sort of behaviour, saying what people should be doing with their own free time and efforts, and criticising anyone who doesn't follow your 'ideal model' of engagement far enough. I don’t know what that even means, despite the fact that I just made the term up. Just re-read my last post for a more coherent argument.

One particular angle that keeps coming up is that those who attempt to engage with science and the like should make more effort to engage with children. This, for better or worse, does seem to be the mantra of the Science Communication community, or at least the many elements I've encountered in inevitable interactions with them during my 'adventures' as a Science Comedian. I may have come across as a bit peeved at this whole 'think of the children' argument. Admittedly, it's hard to be completely impartial to a phrase that I always hear mentally in the shrieking smug tones of Helen Lovejoy, but it's a bit more than that.

Of course it's laudable to want to teach children about science and other things, but I'm always very wary of those actively choose to focus on children and not adults, and criticise others for not sharing this view. And, as sad an indictment of modern society it is that I feel I have to point this out, this isn't some darkly ironic pervert/child abuser joke I'm making. I don't like making accusations like that, in comedy terms it's paradoxically both offensive and hack these days. Also, recent revelations have made me more cautious about levelling 'humorous' accusations of this sort. I was informed this weekend that my old piano teacher has recently confessed to being an 'enthusiastic' homosexual (their words, not mine) with an unnerving fondness for younger men. 'Younger' as in 'potentially illegal', that is, reading between the lines. I'm sure he hasn't done anything illegal (the way gossip works in my home town, even the slightest possibility that he was up to 'no good' would have been front page news), but he does, apparently, spend a slightly unnerving amount of time with teenage boys. 'Judge them by the company they keep' and so forth. This whole thing was relayed to me by a woman in her 70's though, so who knows how many mutations the original facts have gone. Still, considering he and I used to spend a lot of time alone together, it's an unnerving thing to think about.

Interesting side-note, I texted my mates when I found out about this, thinking they'd find it amusing. As someone who hangs around with comedically/cynically inclined people, the responses were obviously quite dark and humorous. Top marks go to my best mate though, who, in response to my text saying about my old piano teacher being a possible pervert, replied by saying 'that's bollocks, you're talking out of your arse. You've never been near a piano!'. Priorities, and all that.

Also, I used to live in the local pub as a child (my parents were the landlords, I wasn't just an 'early starter' in the alcoholic sense). We had a regular children's entertainer there on Sunday's, he used to play the keyboard and do sing-along's and that sort of thing. He has since been jailed for paedophilic reasons. So yes, unnerving again. I don’t know what this mystical connection is between me and piano-playing potential molesters, but it may explain why I have the musical appreciation and ability of the average house brick.

As usual, I digress. But I do have a slight aversion to people who don't just choose to focus on engaging and educating children (which is a noble and essential role to play in life, undeniably), but also take on a superior and often condescending attitude to go with it. Engaging with children is 'the most rewarding activity you can imagine'. It's vital to 'shape young minds'. Children 'aren't fixed in their world view, they're open to new ideas'. When you engage with children 'you help shape the future', and so on and so on. All very well meant I'm sure, but I don't see why this attitude extends to criticising and essentially ostracising those who choose to engage with adults. I'm not sure if this is a deliberate bias, but the clear majority of Science communication projects I've encountered are aimed at children, or families with children.

I can see some of the arguments for this sense of superiority. Children are still learning, so you need to be able to convey your complex knowledge and sense of enthusiasm in easy-to-understand ways. Children aren't restrained by social conventions when it comes to questioning or interrupting. An impression made on a child has the potential to influence their entire life/career path. Children respond to structures/apparatus/demonstrations with enthusiasm and lack an adults sense of cynicism and detachment. All these things are valid to an extent, but it seems to lead to an attitude of superiority regarding those who don't specifically and actively try to teach children about science. Engaging with adults is something of a cop-out, less effort, not so worthwhile, relatively pointless and so on and so on. The impression I get (and again, this may be the self-referential projections of a defensive and fevered mind) is that adults who aren’t already interested in science are a lost cause. Those adults who are interested in science? They should spend as much time as possible engaging with children, they don't need entertainment of their own or anything like that.

So, in the interests of scientific scrutiny, here's a (probably controversial) counterargument; Focussing specifically on children is a cop out. It involves using simple science information and 'cool' toys and gadgets to impress a large group of young people who don't actually know any better yet. This engagement with children almost always occurs in contexts where they are compelled to sit and listen (e.g. in schools) or already have at least a moderate interest in investigating science (e.g. In Science centres or museums, where the fact that they are there at all suggests they want to engage with science in some way). Trying to get a fully formed adult, with their own minds and views, to develop an interest in science is a much tougher ask. You have to communicate on their level, but still convey your information and enthusiasm accurately, otherwise it's all pointless. And as is often pointed out, it's much harder to entertain an adult than it is a child (this may vary depending on a child's adherence to social etiquette, of course). As for the effort/benefits reward argument, which seems to argue that engaging with a child is more worthwhile as you might end up with a science enthusiast for life, then this could be balanced by the fact that adults, as is their wont, tend to have children of their own, and inspiring them to be interested in science will mean every child they have could end up with a constant source of pro-science engagement until they become adults themselves. I'd argue that a parent who is enthusiastic about science significantly outweighs the impact of 1 hour at a science museum, or afternoon show at a school.

This is an extreme argument, of course, and not one I subscribe to myself, I just feel it's worth pointing out as a valid one for people like myself who actively choose to talk science with other adults and get little more than slightly patronising acknowledgement from some professional science communicators. No doubt these people probably often get similar treatment from smug tossers like me. It's all about the ego for some people. I'm far too intelligent and charming for that sort of vain behaviour though, so don't worry.

Anyway, I mention this as, every now and again, I like to engage with children myself. It keeps you grounded, more rounded, and I wanted to point out that I genuinely have no objection to anyone who opts for the 'children first' strategy of communication. I recently did the opening presentation for the University of Wales Hospital 'Science in Health-Live' open day. I often find myself doing amusing science-themed things for school students. This one was fun, and I've actually submitted it to ITV Wales news blogs, as I'm a new science contributor, apparently. It's not up yet, but here's a sneak preview for my regular readers. Speaking of whom, Hi Dave!

'Science In Health-Live': Report

On the 17th of March, I had the privilege of being the opening speaker for the annual 'Science in Health-Live' day, at the University Hospital Wales, Cardiff. This is an annual event which, in its present incarnation, involves several hundred sixth form students attending from dozens of school across the area, to take part in a day of talks, tours and exhibitions that show students the incredible diversity and complexity that is offered by the field of Science in health (and that's just in this part of Wales).

This day has a special resonance for me, as I actually attended myself as an A-level student making the first tentative steps into the field of science. My school wasn't there this time though, and truth be told I'm not sure it ever had anyone attend other than myself, as my poorly funded state school was not known for regularly producing enthusiastic scientists. We didn't even need a minibus to go, my 55 year old biology teacher drove us in his own car. You're probably wondering what a 15 year old would talk about with his 40 years senior biology teacher for an hour long car journey. The answer, if you're interested, is 'the life cycle of the sea lettuce'. I wasn't aware such a thing even existed. Still, beats Chris Moyles at least.

So as a result, it was quite surreal to be stood at the front of the room giving the opening talk s once part of the crowd. As a doctor of neuroscience who is also a stand-up comedian, I'm usually called upon to give amusing, 'quirky' talks with a scientific slant, and this is what I was doing here. My small contribution to the day was to five a brief overview of what exactly is meant by the term 'Science in Health', what fields this involves (medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, optometry etc.), modern hazards to health (obesity, developments in mental disorders, dangerous technology, Cheryl Cole etc.) and future avenues for research. The students seemed to like it, so that's a plus.

This was actually the second year that I'd done the opening talk for the Science in Health open day. My talk was pretty much the same as the year before, with one notable exception. Last year, I ended my slide-show with the obligatory 'enjoy your day' slide with a picture of me next to my name. The speaker after me happened to be dean of the entire hospital complex. However, he didn't use a presentation of his own, but neglected to turn off the projection screen when he started. As a result, his talk was delivered with a gigantic image of my massive head looking down on him, like some sort of sarcastic science-based Welsh Chairman Mao. I removed that slide this year, in case it happens again and I end up accidentally starting a cult.

The Science in Health open day is an invaluable day for any student with even a slight interest in studying Life sciences in further education. Although the prospect of spending a day wandering around a hospital might conjure up some stereotypical images (e.g. waiting rooms full of people with various maladies, eerily lit corridors, that strange organic/disinfectant smell that always seems to be ever-present), when it comes to the University Hospital Wales, this is far from the truth. The site includes many cutting edge research facilities, including a brand new Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scanning facility, a vast and ever expanding DNA database, and numerous other labs engaged in cutting edge research (I'm not sure if there is a lab dedicated to improved scalpels and surgical tools, which would literally be 'cutting edge research').

The talks and presentations covered all manner of subjects from fertilisation to deadly diseases (from birth to death, in a sense). I would have loved to have joined in with the whole day, but unfortunately am quite a bit older (and somewhat balder) than the students, so sneakily tagging along may have been problematic.

The whole day is put together and run by the Cardiff University 'Public Understanding of Science and Health' group, neatly titled as the PUSH group . They are chaired by Professor Anthony Campbell, and also run a series of public lectures.

The lectures are excellent events for anyone with even a cursory interest in Health Science, (or wants to develop an interest, or simply wants to attend something that'll leave you feeling as if you're smarter than before).

It looks as if, even in these trying financial times, Wales is punching above its weight with regards to furthering the scientific understanding of human health, and if this crop of enthusiastic students is anything to judge by, this will be the case for quite some time. As was pointed out on the day, Wales was the birthplace of the NHS (via Aneurin Bevan) and the originator of the Cochrane collaboration*, possibly the most thorough and reliable source of scientific evidence for health developments in the UK and beyond. So arguably, millions of people owe their lives to Wales. Feel free to point that out to the next person who whines about Severn bridge toll.

* = The Dean of medicine pointed out that Cochrane started his project/campaign/whatever you call it at Cardiff University.

E-mail: Humourology (at)

Twitter: @garwboy

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